Teenagers find inspiration in Roman history
Earthwatch field management assistant Rowena Millard joined a group of teenagers as facilitator on the first Roman Fort on Tyne teen team in August last year.
My long-held hope of joining an archaeological dig was answered last summer when the opportunity came along to combine this with the pleasure of working with the first Earthwatch UK teen team.
There is a presumption that South Shields on the north east coast of England is a place of bracing wind and rain and not somewhere many would put on their World Top 10 must-see list. But uniquely, when the rest of the UK was suffering from endless days of rain and flooding, our young team of budding archaeologists enjoyed many long days of blue skies as they peeled off a layer of Roman Britain. They also discovered long sandy beaches, enigmatic castles and breathtaking scenery in this corner of England.
My co-facilitator was Helen Wingate, a successful music teacher and National Trust volunteer, with years of experience working with teenagers and a regular organiser of educational music tours. We collected our teenagers early on the first day at London Heathrow - four boys and six girls aged 17 and 18. Along with our US volunteers were two Canadians, one Belgian, and an Italian from Rome itself. It was good to have a real Roman at the Roman fort. After a six-hour minibus journey to South Shields, we were glad to arrive at our guesthouse - Once upon a Tyne. We were allocated to our shared rooms and then tucked into a buffet supper. After ice-breaking sessions we headed off to the nearby beach to catch a glimpse of the scheduled meteor shower.
Up early next morning, after breakfast we walked the half mile to Arbeia Fort at the mouth of the River Tyne through different neighbourhoods of South Shields. Here the Roman ancestry had been absorbed and winked at us as we walked past Fort Street, Vespasian Street, Claudius Court and the Arbeia hairdressers.
Our team was led into the cosy museum and welcomed over the top of a brightly lit Roman skeleton by archaeologists Paul Bidwell and Graeme Stobbs, and research staff Roger Oram and Liz Elliott. Graeme gave us a tour of the fort, first constructed c. AD 160, and showed us some of the thousands of small finds - buckles, coins, pottery pieces and armour.
After a safety briefing and a home-made lunch at the on-site Earthwatch hut, our team proudly unveiled shiny new trowels and ventured out onto the research site. The teenagers were hooked on the anticipation and knowledge that at last they were on their way to helping in the understanding of the Roman occupation of Britain. At 5pm we reluctantly headed back to the guesthouse via the local supermarket to stock up with lunch ingredients for the following day, and of course, sweets and cakes to sustain us through an evening of Harry Potter, poker and internet calls to families.
On arrival at the site next morning our high spirits were dampened like the rain-soaked fort. Overnight rain meant we couldn't dig as our 12 plus pairs of feet would have damaged the research area. Instead, we took our first foray into the City of Newcastle via the Tyne Tunnel under the wide River Tyne.
We met Roger at the Roman fort Segedunum, which had been built by Hadrian's army and excavated by Tyne and Wear Museums in the 1970s. After the café, a talk and short historical film in the viewing tower, he led us out onto site to see the archaeological architecture and the very end of Hadrian's Wall - we were after all at Wallsend. Inside the Bath House we gasped at the intricacy of the relief and paintings crafted by Roger and his associates during the reconstruction process. From there our learning process continued with a tour of the Museum of Antiquities at the University of Newcastle, complete with replica 3rd century Roman temple and dressing-up clothes for teenagers.
The next morning was grey and threatening too, but Graeme set us to task in anticipation of the sun. We scraped, dug, wheel-barrowed and laughed our way to our first find of bones. We soon learned the value of good tea breaks, as no true archaeological dig is worth its salt without them.
Arbeia Roman Fort was enlarged to become a supply base during the campaigns of the emperor Septimus Severus in Scotland from AD 208-11. The grain stores and headquarters are clearly visible and during our nine days of open area excavation, we contributed to the legacy of 15 years of Earthwatch teams. We learned to prepare the site for photographs and survey work, worked at the maths and calculations involved with fixed datum and elevations, set up and used measurements by tripod and theodolite, and mapped and drew using survey grids as guides. Our finds included a large flint, nails, pottery, bones and shells which were all recorded in three dimension and their place in the sequence of time established. The plans we worked so hard to produce were signed by us and logged for posterity. A small group of Newcastle University students worked alongside us teaching, guiding and befriending our enthusiastic young team who were left with no doubt that at last, their cerebral and practical efforts were not being assessed or graded for curriculum purposes, but that their work was truly meaningful and of real research value.
As their confidence grew, the teenagers began to answer questions from the visiting public about their work and they described examining the original fort wall and the possible evidence of iron age settlement, the gradual uncovering of roman cement mounds, the ubiquitous turf blocks where the Romans had expanded the fortress walls, and the mysterious mounds we hoped indicated an iron age cemetery but turned out to be pre-historic ant hills.
Apart from the staff who lived on site we had the guesthouse to ourselves and the teenagers could relax, play games, read, watch High School Musical over and over again, but most of all enjoy and value each other's company. Graeme and Paul also gave presentations which put our learning into context.
Our recreational days were well deserved. By unanimous agreement, the team wanted to see castles and the county of Northumbria is rich with castles, but which one to choose? Alnwick Castle stole the trophy and had the added bonus that this was Harry Potter heaven for the fans in the team. For added measure, Roger and I drove them down the spectacular Northumbrian coastline to the 12th century medieval castle at Warkworth, where we saw the last of a jousting tournament.
Our scheduled three mile walk along Hadrian's Wall took place in a roaring wind. The wild weather matched the countryside as we trekked between Housesteads Fort and Steel Rigg, one of the most picturesque places in Britain. As we explored the wall's mile castles, layers of history and the Robin Hood film set, it wasn't hard to imagine what a bleak place this, the northernmost outpost in Roman Britain, had been for the souls stationed there thousands of years ago. A short visit to the excavations at Vindolanda completed the picture.
We sadly celebrated our last night with a fish and chip supper party in the commanders' headquarters. During the two weeks the teenagers had grown in confidence and motivation, experienced independence in a safe environment, and thrown themselves into the teamwork and learning brought by this opportunity. Since we waved goodbye to them, many have pursued their new friendships, and some have been inspired to continue their archaeological education at the next level. Perhaps Earthwatch has fledged a new archaeologist, who will one day come to Earthwatch with a project idea of their own?